Paul T. Lewis is professor of psychology and chair of the philosophy department at Bethel College.
Nichols' response to Huebner's piece on faith and learning (Mennonite Life, June, 2003) clarified the importance of Enlightenment principles, especially as they provided a corrective to a kind of cognitive relativism (which he termed non-constantinianism) Nichols perceived to be reflected in Huebner's address. I believe Nichols was not claiming, as Huebner suggested in his response, that the principles of logic or rationality are both necessary and sufficient for the development of the Christian faith. Nor do I think that Nichols was claiming that content specific to the Enlightenment tradition is necessarily primary to a teaching and understanding of the Christian faith. Rather, I believe Nichols was emphasizing rational or logical principles being necessary to arguing the merits of that faith over other perspectives. In fact, the basic thrust of the Enlightenment was not to necessarily promote a particular kind of truth but a process by which truth, any Truth - including little "t" and large "T" truths - can be ascertained. In brief what I shall be arguing is that the Enlightenment is more important to establishing the credibility of Huebner's position on faith and learning than he cares to admit, and further, that his position as now freshly conceived via his response to Nichols, while not without merits, contains conceptual confusion. Given space limitations I shall highlight just three of the numerous problems I perceived in his response.
Most troubling to me was Huebner's insistence that his particular position is so radically different from Mr. Nichol's, that a reconciliation conceived in the traditional way is well-nigh impossible, that it is nothing short of a conversion that is called for on either scholar's part to the other's position if both are going to see things in the same way. This is a move similar to that made by the post-modern philosopher Richard Rorty in his Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge University Press, 1989), and no less problematic. The inherent contradictory nature of Huebner's position becomes apparent in his suggesting the importance of Enlightenment principles of logic by which one can judge differing perspectives, but not that such principles themselves be used to argue for a common ground apparently having its basis in the Enlightenment 'tradition'. Huebner writes on the first page of his response that the Enlightenment's
. . . use lies not in attempting to convince the other on the basis of a common perspective but on testing the utility of the perspectives themselves. And that test has to do with which perspective can more adequately account for the Christian faith.
Of course, an account of adequacy begs the question, adequacy in relationship to what? The 'what' can be most anything: Life-satisfaction? Health? Might it be he power of the Christian faith to transform lives, to relieve suffering, to predict events? What is it going to be? Indeed a simple but powerful metaphysics of form as clarified by Richard Shweder in his Thinking Through Cultures (Harvard University Press, 1991) posits that any successful comparison between two things presupposes some commonality on which they can be compared. This principle of rationality (an Enlightenment consideration) appears to be something that is both appreciated and eschewed by Huebner; he cannot do both in the service of a coherent position. Furthermore, we might find that in the end the commonality on which the Enlightenment and Christianity are compared may be filled with a specific content, e.g., to predict events, which may well be based in Enlightenment tradition. But why would this necessarily be thought in some sense prior to, or incompatible with, Christianity?
'Foundationalism' is another Enlightenment principle that causes Huebner to engage in conceptual confusion. Let's not limit the term to Descartes' view as intimated by Ted Honderich in his The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 1995). Foundationalism is, after all, an empty abstraction that only gains life with whatever content it has: The cogito ergo sum is one possibility, of the possibilities often cited by anti-foundationalists. As much as Huebner rails against such a concept, it is unclear as to whether he takes issue with the abstract structure or the concrete content. It would seem to be the latter only. On the third page of his response, after citing the Anglican theologian John Milbank's suggestion "that regarding the Christian faith there are no givens, there are only gifts, given and received" (Huebner's words), Huebner goes on to claim how "(t)his alone implies that foundationalism distorts the faith. People do not come to a gift-oriented Christian faith through logical persuasion because it is a faith." I have no quibble with this last sentence, but with the first sentence of the quote, and Huebner should as well. For he writes on the last page of his response
At bottom, today's most profound challenge is how to study philosophy in an institution (Christian university) whose conviction it is that Christology and ecclesiology precede epistemology and axiology and ethics. To ask it this way implies that the very debates about technology and ethics and the problem of evil, and epistemological method, get recast from the very beginning in ways that make their formulations themselves Christian.
I would submit that the strong foundationalist tone is hard to deny in the above passage. However, it is difficult to discern whether his Christian foundationalism is based in a claim of logical precedence, of logical ordering, or of a basis or beginning of a new or different kind of logic: Christian logic. At this point I would go with the third possibility. In short I must confess that I find puzzling the degree to which Huebner is at such pains to argue against the Enlightenment, when he appears to base important parts of his position, along with its eventual credibility, on Enlightenment concepts.
Ryan Nichols, in his response (Mennonite Life, September, 2003) to Huebner's initial essay (Mennonite Life, June, 2003), writes cogently about the importance of a more balanced relationship between traditional philosophy and Christian theology. While I would not be so generous, Nichols acknowledges Huebner's arguments against Niebuhr's accusations of insularity, and then writes:
Nonetheless, if our Christian worldview is to be successful, we will need to re-conceive 'engagement' as incorporating more than the privileged, inward-looking relationships between our faith and our learning; we must get our hands dirty and begin intellectually engaging secular thought.
It would do well for Huebner to give such an injunction more heed than he obviously does. Let me offer just one example. After declaring the traditional problems in the philosophy of religion as pointed out by Nichols, e.g., the concept of evil, the proof of God's existence, freedom and determinism in relationship to the concept of God, etc., as "uninteresting," Huebner goes on to suggest that what is interesting and may be a far more important philosophical agenda to engage is the following, to wit: ". . . to unpack the logic of gift in a world that does not understand such a thing, or to articulate how a commitment to Jesus' teaching on non-violence can be made credible in today's violent world, or to develop an imagination that makes intelligible the conviction that God is acting in this world." These are all very good projects for the Christian philosopher to pursue. I just find it hard to believe that any of these projects can be engaged in without first coming to grips with some of the more traditional Enlightenment projects, or at least to work on them hand-in-hand with those more contemporary suggested by Huebner above. For example, consider the last one on his list: " . . . to develop the imagination that makes intelligible the conviction that God is acting in the world". In developing an imagination which makes this intelligible one has to confront at some point the problem of evil as well as just what kind of 'concept of God' one is assuming, or presupposing. What kind of God is engaging in what kind of action in a world so bereft with evil? Is God still in control, not in control, or has He abdicated His control? Why? And if He does intervene, just what does such intervention do to our customary notions of freedom and determinism? If we don't engage these questions seriously, the evidential base on which Huebner's agenda depends, will be indeed loose and insubstantial.
To conclude, if we are going to move ahead with the best kind of Christian philosophy, I am dubious about the value of adopting wholesale Huebner's position. While passionately argued with many important and telling points made, his argument showcases a view that seems riddled with conceptual confusions, and in the end, with at least what appears to be a veiled plea for insularity. Neither of these qualities bode well for the framework's potential as an integrating force behind Christian faith - not to mention other faiths - and learning. However, Huebner's remarks highlight the potential challenges that are ahead of us as we sketch out the possible forms that a reconciliation between the Enlightenment and Christian faith may take, although I would go further than this. A reading of Huebner's position strongly suggests that such a reconciliation is necessary if the Christian faith is going to thrive and not founder.
Copyright © Bethel College
Contact Mennonite Life